Long before the ancient Egyptians were mummifying their Pharaohs, the people of the coastal lands of what is now northern Chile had developed their own complex preservation techniques for the world’s oldest mummies. Chinchorro were making mummies in 5000 BC – over thousand years before the earliest Egyptian attempts.
In Chinchorro society everyone was properly mummified; in Egypt it was reserved for the wealthy and powerful. The Chinchorro removed the organs and replaced them with a paste made of ash, water and sea-lion blood. The same paste was used to make a mask (and a model of the sexual organs) before the whole corpse was pained black, polished until shiny, and adorned with a wig made from human hair.
Some researchers suggest that like ancient Egyptians Chinchorro probably believed that man had two souls, one of which would return periodically to the body, which therefore needed to be kept fit.
Lifestyle of Chinchorro society
Until now archeologists have recovered 149 Chinchorro mummies and studying them has revealed much about their lifestyle. Life expectancy was about 25 years – which is longer that that of most prehistoric peoples – perhaps because of their healthy diet of seafood and vegetables. This meant they had more time to spend on the elaborate ritual of honouring their dead by mummification. It’s likely that that the practice started because the surrounding landscape is so dry that almost anything that dies ends up in a semi-mummified state instead of decomposing. The Chinchorro mummies lasted for seven millennia but are now falling victim to climate change. As the region becomes more humid, bacteria are slowly turning them to black ooze – hence the word ‘mummy’ which comes from the Persian mummiya, meaning ‘bitumen’.
Wider influence of Chinchorro
Roman troops from North Africa brought the knowledge of mummification with them to Britain. The northernmost mummies, dating from about AD 300, were discovered in Barnsley. In the intervening centuries mummies haven’t always been treated with proper respect. They’ve been recycled as fertiliser, rag fibre for newsprint, bruise powered and even a popular paint called ‘Mummy Brown’.
But the Victorians were obsessed with them. Public unrolling were festive occasions with speeches by Egyptologists to set the scene and brass bands playing. They didn’t always go smoothly: in Boston in 1850 Egyptologist George Glidden unwrapped a ‘princess’ who turned out to have penis.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the Chinchorros is that, based on the available evidence, it appears that social hierarchy was not developed, unlike other early civilisations. How this culture managed to remain egalitarian for many millennia and function at a social level without hierarchy is something that has intrigued archaeologists and anthropologists for decades. Research into this aspect of their culture is ongoing.
source: The Third Book of General Ignorance by John Loyd and John Mitchinson